Daisy Edgar-Jones is fatally miscast in an abysmal murder mystery that lacks believable characters or even a trace of tension
With a premise involving murder and romantic jealousy out in the marshes of North Carolina, the least you’d expect from Where the Crawdads Sing is for it to deliver something sweatily salacious, even if the film as a whole ends up as schlocky nonsense. Instead, Olivia Newman’s film is too incompetent to offer even that (hell, it doesn’t even deliver any of the titular “crawdads,” better known as crayfish in UK). Built on the back of a fatally flawed central casting decision, there is nothing remotely convincing or exciting to be found in this flat, hokey whodunit.
At the heart of Where the Crawdads Sing’s problems lies Daisy Edgar-Jones, playing the lead role of “marsh girl” Kya Clark. Adapted from the novel by Delia Owens (who, in a truly bizarre real-life twist, is now wanted for questioning in Zambia regarding a murder), the story finds Kya accused of murder after her bad-tempered secret boyfriend Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson, on muted form) is found dead in a swamp. On paper, this is a plot that Edgar-Jones can sell, but everything surrounding it makes her the wrong choice.
We are meant to believe that Kya has been surviving in the swamps and marshes in the ‘60s Deep South, entirely on her own since childhood, but nothing about Edgar-Jones makes this believable. Her clean prettiness is at odds with a character who needs some rough and grimy edges to really come to life, and Edgar-Jones (along with some lazy make-up work) never manages to look like she’s come from anywhere other than maybe a chic Soho hotel.
It’s the most confounding detail in a film just full of them, from a montage of Kya’s childhood that is meant to be tragic but ends up funny in its dreadful absurdity to the central trial of Kya, where she faces the scorn of the townspeople and a thinly-sketched prosecutor. David Strathairn, as Kya’s kindly lawyer, initially lends an air of respectability to proceedings with his mere presence, but he’s given nothing interesting to do and fades away in a story with no real mystery or tension. At no point does Kya feel in real peril, Newman and writer Lucy Alibar making the prosecution’s case so shoddy that a guilty verdict is nigh-on impossible.
We get to see Kya and Chase’s relationship in flashbacks, but these too quickly feel like a waste of time. There’s no spark between the actors and Newman keeps everything incredibly chaste with the exception of one brutal assault scene that is genuinely horrible and entirely unearned by the rest of the film.
Direction and writing are lousy throughout, bad performances (even Garret Dillahuntt, who is born for Southern-fried silliness like this, flounders with the script) meeting shonky lighting and poor editing choices, all leading up to one of the most supremely embarrassing movie endings I’ve ever seen. The “novel adaptation for adults” has been underserved in movies of late, mostly migrating to long-form prestige TV, and I’d love to see it make a substantial return, but if this and last week’s Persuasion are anything to go by, the genre has a long way to swim back to shore.
Where the Crawdads Sing is released in UK cinemas on 22 July.Where to watch